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Will Zurich soon be a hotspot for US sports?

Next year, Switzerland will be represented in Europe’s largest football league with the start-up company Helvetic Guards. The guards should one day play in front of almost as many spectators as FCZ did in the past championship season.

Soon to be a guest in the greater Zurich area? The Cologne Centurions and the Istanbul Rams in a European League encounter.

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They have just negotiated television rights with a sports marketer. That’s why Toni Zöller and Mukadder Erdönmez appear in suits in “Frau Gerolds Garten”. They want to explain their project to the NZZ on a wooden bench. In flawless High German, they explain what they have set themselves as a goal: They want to make American football important in Zurich.

This spring, they and other investors acquired the license to enter the European League of Football (ELF) with a Swiss franchise next year. They founded the organization Helvetic Guards for this – and the club logo expresses how this name is to be understood: it is a kind of homage to the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

Initiated two years ago, ELF is the next attempt to popularize America’s most popular sport in Europe. It is true that more and more young people are watching TV broadcasts of the American National Football League here, and the Super Bowl is also a ratings hit here. But a permanently prosperous, transnational league system did not exist on the continent to date – the ELF now wants to change that.

This season there are teams from Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain and Turkey, in 2023 a team from Italy and Hungary will join, and of course: also the first from Switzerland. The fact that the headquarters of the Guards is in Zurich should be in the spirit of the ELF. She prefers big cities with international appeal.

The teams of the ELF

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Székesfehérvár (ab 2023)

They are looking for a stadium “in the greater Zurich area” – but it will not be the Letzigrund

Calculation may also be concealed in the name Helvetic Guards. Patriotic feelings could be aroused in one or the other player, and the new organization will need many Swiss to join it. Because according to the rules of the ELF, around 40 of the 50 players in the core squad will have to come from Switzerland or at least have been trained here. With this requirement, the ELF makers must have remembered that similar league concepts had once failed due to a lack of local staff.

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Mukadder Erdönmez, Helvetic Guards

Mukadder Erdönmez, Helvetic Guards

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Mukadder Erdönmez says: “We could have called ourselves Zurich Zebras. But we want to represent the whole of Switzerland and embody values ​​like loyalty and discipline. As a newcomer from a small country, we also see ourselves as an underdog who rebels against powerful opponents. »

If all Swiss internationals joined the Helvetic Guards – in the national interest so to speak – the squad would be largely intact. But a lot still exists only on the drawing board. The guards still don’t have a single player under contract. They have not yet announced where they will play their home games.

When it comes to the stadium, they keep a low profile, pointing out that the negotiations are nearing completion. They could only reveal so much: They were looking for a stadium “in the greater Zurich area” with a capacity of 5,000 to 15,000 spectators, and the Letzigrund was not an option. And as soon as American football is established in Zurich, it could also be the case that occasional home games take place in Geneva, Basel or Lugano.

They are following a five-year plan and dream of a fan community with 100,000 members

Despite the pending stadium question, the project has picked up speed. The Guards have added two college-educated North Americans to their ranks as directors of athletic training, and they’ve already made a name for themselves in Swiss football. A sighting training session is announced for October, in which players can recommend themselves for a contract. And the entire team should be assembled by February at the latest.

One of the Swiss candidates that the guards should focus on is the massive defensive specialist Tim Hänni. He had to move to Hamburg to be able to play in the ELF. But players from National League A should also be available if they want to break out of their niche and step onto a bigger stage. Today they usually only play in front of a few hundred fans.

Toni Zoeller, Helvetic Guards

Toni Zoeller, Helvetic Guards

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In contrast, the goals of the Helvetic Guards seem ambitious, almost over-ambitious. The Guards are pursuing a five-year plan and dream of a Swiss fan community with 100,000 members. And one day they want to host their home games in front of an average of 12,000 spectators, which almost corresponds to the popularity of the audience at FC Zurich in the past championship season.

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The Guards are very active in advertising on social networks. And Toni Zöller says there are daily inquiries from players or coaches who are interested in their organization. On July 8, they will invite the public to an “open house” at the Stadelhofen theater in Zurich.

Even the Swiss American Football Association felt taken by surprise

While the Guards have received positive feedback, other background noises have also accompanied them. Insiders spoke publicly of “shock waves” that went through the national football scene when it was surprisingly announced in mid-May that a Swiss team would dare to step into the ELF. Only a very small circle was informed and involved, and some of them were recruited from neighboring countries.

Toni Zöller and Mukadder Erdönmez know each other from the Konstanz Pirates, a German football club at amateur level from the Landesliga Baden-Württemberg, where Zöller is the honorary chairman of the board. Now he has become a co-investor and business partner in this major project in Zurich. Even the Swiss American Football Association felt taken by surprise. The Guards said they had to maintain a non-disclosure agreement during negotiations with the ELF.

And the clubs in the National League A were soon feeling uncer- tainty. What does it mean for the future if such a colossus enters your microcosm? Would he poach all the good players away from them?

A longtime official sees the Guards as an opportunity, not a threat

Meanwhile, the excitement has died down a bit. And there are even conciliatory voices from people who have reason to take a more critical stance. Mathias Brändli has been an official at the Calanda Broncos for more than thirty years, the club that has left the most marks in Swiss football and now has to fear for its supremacy – and he sees the guards as an opportunity, not a threat.

Brändli says clubs like the Broncos have struggled for media recognition for long enough, but the breakthrough has never materialized. Now there is finally hope for profitable marketing through the ELF.

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Many players were just waiting to find a sporting challenge that didn’t require them to go through the arduous path of going to a US college – and where at least a little capital could be made from their lavish pastime. “If the Guards in Switzerland can stimulate development, it will eventually benefit the Broncos.”

Brändli gives the ELF credit because it is led by a commissioner in the person of Patrick Esume, who stands for credibility. Esume may polarize, but he has built a reputation in the industry as a TV commentator and coach of France’s European champions team.

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“Experience a day vacation in America” – the co-founder Erdönmez also sees football games as a lifestyle product

It remains to be seen how much of the shine will fall off the Helvetic Guards. The entry hurdle in the ELF is relatively high: those responsible expect a budget “in the low single-digit million range” for the first season. And they know that they won’t be able to make a living with their commitment anytime soon. They will continue to work full-time in their current jobs: Zöller as a legal trainee, Erdönmez in financial services.

But, as Erdönmez emphasizes, the Guards are “already a business project”. He says: “It’s a startup company that we want to make fly.” In general, Erdönmez likes to use a slang that would get him points at any negotiating table in the private sector. If an agreement in contract talks is imminent, that means, in his words, that “there could soon be a ‘landing’ with the ‘preferred partner'”, it probably won’t be long before the “official announcement”. And he expects his organization to do top-notch work.

Erdönmez also sees football games as a “lifestyle product”. It is important what happens in the stadium, with what result the teams parted. But the trappings are at least as important, such as the tailgating outside in the parking lot when the fans have a barbecue together before the game. When a family comes to the stadium, says Erdönmez, they can “experience a day’s vacation in America” ​​- and nobody has to be afraid of “getting a pyro in the head out of sheer fanaticism, like in football”.

The difference to football is noticeable in the conversation. And, one gets the impression: The Helvetic Guards see enough incentives to be optimistic about their league. In any case, Toni Zöller concludes that the “competitive balance” is right.

The co-founders of the Helvetic Guards in a talk.

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